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In 2021 Marvel shows took over your TV

Disney Plus became indispensable entertainment this year.

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Loki become president of our hearts in 2021.
Marvel Studios

After an intergalactic, time-traveling war and a silly trip to Europe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a quiet 2020, prompted by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. This year, the MCU had a mountain of content at the ready, leaning hard into TV via Disney Plus. New episodes of its five shows will have come out in 34 of the 52 weeks of the year.

That's 34 weeks of fan excitement, word-of-mouth recommendations, intense social media and old-school advertising. It's an astounding blitz of content, and was likely essential in getting Disney Plus to hit 118.1 million subscribers within two years of launching. (Market leader Netflix has around 214 million after more than a decade.)

We've had plenty of MCU TV shows before -- Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, the six Netflix series and the truly terrible Inhumans -- but their connections to the movies felt increasingly tenuous as their seasons wore on. They seemed to happen in tiny pockets of Marvel's world, while the Avengers and their cinematic buddies explored the whole world.

The Disney Plus shows changed all that. Each of the four live-action series picked up on plot threads left hanging after the events of Avengers: Endgame, meaning they feel utterly essential for fans. Much like the comic universe that spawned the MCU, we've hit the point where characters will move seamlessly between movies and shows. And unlike the one-shot effect of the movies, having the shows stretch over several weeks meant they were the stuff of (virtual) water cooler discussion for a far longer period.

Marvel movies made their tentative return as well, with Black Widow launching simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus Premier Access. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals hit theaters first, as will Spider-Man: No Way Home.

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WandaVision's couple enjoyed a brief moment of domestic bliss.

Marvel/Disney Plus

Witch and robot

Marvel kicked off its 2021 TV blitz through the medium's tropes in the sitcom-inspired WandaVision, which ran from Jan. 15 to March 5. It didn't even feel much like a Marvel show at first, with the 1950s-style opening episode leaving us a bit clueless about what was going on.

However, the show's Marvel-ness gradually emerged over the course of its eight episodes, revealing how Wanda Maximoff's grief over the death of her robot boyfriend Vision (seen in Avengers: Infinity War) led her to bewitch an entire town into taking part in her idyllic, TV-inspired fantasy existence.

Fans also theorized relentlessly about who the show's true villain was, believing that the devil himself must be pulling Wanda's strings. The answer turned out to be hiding in plain sight, giving us one of the year's catchiest music jingles and setting up a spinoff show.

It also appeared to rip open the fabric of the MCU's reality through the appearance of a character from a different Marvel movie universe, but that storytelling possibility was seemingly cast aside with a cheap joke. Marvel's reality would remain intact for another few months at least. 

WandaVision proved to be a critical darling, with a 77 critical average and 7.0 user score on CNET sister site Metacritic.

Falcon and Winter Soldier

Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes were a fun pairing in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Marvel Studios

Buddy cops

Two weeks after the WandaVision mystery was solved, things took a patriotic turn with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, occupying Marvel fans' minds from March 19 to April 23. It followed Sam Wilson as he tried to figure out how to take up the Captain America mantle after Steve Rogers entrusted him with the shield, bickering delightfully with Cap's buddy Bucky Barnes along the way.

These six episodes felt like pretty standard Marvel fare after the weirdness of WandaVision, with Sam and Bucky teaming up with a terrorist, taking on a pretender Captain America and chasing down a group of superhuman antinationalists.

There were some flashes of brilliance though, especially when Sam discovered shameful treatment of Black men in the government's past attempts to recreate Captain America and grappled with what his taking up the role would mean. There were flashes of racial tension that appeared to be nods with the broader racial reckoning around the world, but the show didn't explore these issues in a truly meaningful way. This may all be setup for a deeper analysis somewhere down the line

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier didn't fare quite as well with critics or audiences as the MCU's first show, holding a 75 Metacritic critical average and a 5.7 user score.

Loki and Sylvie with knife

Loki and Sylvie captured our imaginations in the summer months.

Marvel Studios

Trickster returns

The summer's show was the big one, picking up on Endgame's most exciting loose end -- the 2012 Avengers incarnation of Loki's escape from custody. Loki drummed up major excitement from June 9 to July 14, and created seemingly infinite storytelling possibilities as it stepped outside the familiar MCU reality. 

It also shifted the established Disney Plus new show day from Friday to Wednesday, likely to stop new episodes from cannibalizing viewers from Marvel movie Black Widow, which landed on the service on a Friday (as have subsequent movie additions).

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Over six episodes, we followed Thor's brother as he joined the chronological cops of the Time Variance Authority in hunting escapees from divergent timelines and keeping those alternate realities in check. Events became wholly unpredictable after Loki encountered his badass female Variant Sylvie, whose quest to destroy the TVA became increasingly sympathetic.

It also had an epic season finale, opening up Marvel's multiverse and setting up a villain of terrifying potential. Loki is also the only live-action Marvel show we know is getting a second season.

This show was warmly received, with a 74 critical average and 7.2 user score on Metacritic.

Captain Carter beats up a Hydra goon in Marvel's What If...?

Captain Carter kicked off the animated adventure of Marvel's What If...?

Marvel Studios

Multiversal madness

Marvel turned to animation later in the summer, with What If...? episodes dropping from Aug. 11 to Oct. 6. It took Loki's multiverse concept to the next level, with an anthology series exploring divergent timelines where familiar MCU events played out differently.

Its nine episodes dived into realities where Peggy Carter gained the power of Captain America, Doctor Strange used dark sorcery to achieve ultimate power, and zombified Avengers gobbled up most of the world's population (to name a few). The show's alternate heroes and antiheroes ultimately came together to face an all-powerful version of Ultron before he could wipe out the multiverse.

Ultron-Vision in Marvel's What If... ?

Infinity Ultron marched across the multiverse.

Marvel Studios

What If… ? felt like the MCU at its most unashamedly comic book-y, presenting with more heightened situations than even Loki. The second nine-episode season is confirmed as well.

Critics and audience members weren't quite as enamored with this show, with the groups giving it respective averages of 69 and 6.3 on Metacritic. It also failed to create the same level of social media buzz as the live-action shows, suggesting that a chunk of the audience skipped this one (likely because it was animated). 

Kate and Clint on bridge in Hawkeye

Kate Bishop and Clint Barton bring season's greetings in Hawkeye.

Marvel Studios

Festive adventure

We're halfway through the final 2021 Marvel show, Hawkeye, which runs Nov. 24 to Dec. 22. This one follows the charming pairing of Avenger Clint Barton and new apprentice Kate Bishop, as they face off against New York City's criminal underworld during the festive season.

It's unclear how Hawkeye will play out, but it's already set up another Disney Plus show and seems likely to shake up the MCU again by reintroducing a beloved villain.

Right now, this show has a 66 critical average and 6.6 user score on Metacritic. 

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Kamala Khan is coming to Disney Plus next year.

Marvel

Beyond 2021

After this year's Marvel TV marathon ends, details of upcoming releases get a little fuzzy. Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, season 2 of What If…?, Secret Invasion, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special are expected to hit Disney Plus in 2022, but Marvel hasn't given us firm dates for them yet. 

Ms. Marvel is expected to drop in the fall, while the Guardians holiday special will probably come in November or December, suggesting next year won't be quite as Marvel TV-heavy for Disney Plus.